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Show and Tell

Let’s look at this mural Chapel of the Prodigal from the Chapel of the Prodigal at Montreat, a Presbyterian conference center in North Carolina. All the characters are here, so we get to see our selves somewhere in this image and in this story.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

So here’s the cast: two sons, their father, a foreigner, some pigs, the father’s hired hands, a calf, and a few servants. Where are you in this story? Wherever you are, let’s celebrate the love that calls us home, and that makes a home within us for each other


“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” (Robert Frost)

The irony is that in the poem, that line is spoken about a character who is no longer welcome in his family; home isn’t that kind of place for him. Let’s brainstorm: what does it take to get kicked out of a family (yours or one you know)? (Not much, but we’ll come up with something if we’re being honest.) Jesus’ story today is as extreme as last week’s were. In all these stories, God goes to inordinate lengths to find and forgive people. God goes farther than we’re able to alone.

This week’s story is clearly about forgiveness. Last week was too, but it was perhaps harder to see. After all, sheep and coins are not morally responsible agents. Here, there’s no doubt that the prodigal son sins “against heaven and against [his father].” There are competing ideas of sin here. In the younger son’s understanding, bad behavior disqualifies him from the status of a son. The father, by contrast, feels the son’s sin as death and loss, and he responds appropriately. There’s no question that the son did behave poorly, and it had a lot to do with whether or not he was still a son. When he asked his father for the inheritance, he essentially said, “I want you dead” (there was no such thing as a trust fund). He renounced his born identity and family status, and then he squandered his life. Though he had presumably been born a Jew, he joined a gentile household and spent his time caring for pigs that were better fed than he was. In a sense, there’s no wonder that he came home with the idea that all this had made him no longer his father’s son.

However, this idea gets it all backward. It’s not that he misbehaved and then lost his family status. Instead, he rejected the relationship with his father, then showed it – that is, he quit being a son before he did anything else. Jesus hints at this with the line, “When he came to his senses…” Literally he says, “When he came to himself.” The son woke up and realized who he was, or who he had been, but it seemed like there was no way to go back. The best he could come up with was to ask, “Make me like one of your hired servants.” It’s as if he’d forgotten how to be a son, forgotten who he was. But the father doesn’t forget. He runs to his son and embraces him with a robe, ring, and sandals – all as if he’d never stopped being his son. In fact, he never had. His father never forgot his son, even when the son forgot himself.

And there’s the Gospel in a nutshell. As much as we might forget that we belong to God, God never does; she waits patiently for us to realize who we are and come back. God is like the family of a soldier who has gone missing at war and is presumed dead; despite all indications, they refuse to turn off their porch light – and one night, while they’re playing cards after dinner, there he is! Only there’s more. God doesn’t stay home. He runs off to find us, even to the far-off places we may go. God comes in Jesus to gather us from the distant country of sin.

That’s all well and good, but Jesus goes on. The older son is still out in the field. At first it looks as if he’s not invited to the welcome party. Really, we find out that he “became angry and refused to go in. ” We often read this story as if its central relationship were between the father and the younger son, and so we identify with the child who forgot who he was and yet was welcomed back home. But Jesus is not talking to self-identified sinners here. When we reread the context, we see that he’s talking to religious insiders, and they’re mad because he eats with those “younger sons.” Well, the “good religious folks” can leave now: Jesus gathers sinners and reminds them that they’re members of God’s family, even though they’d forgotten (that’s what we mean by sin).

That is in fact where the older brother exits – not just the party, the family. Rather, here he shows that he’d already forgotten his place in the family, and he stands outside the house. The father goes out to him, just as he did with the younger son, and begs him to come in. Hear how the older son retorts: “Look! I’ve been slaving for you… But when this son of yours comes home…” He seems to say, “I’m not your son, and that’s not my brother. I know myself as your slave.” Just as surely as the younger son forgot his family identity, so did the older one. You could call it resentment or self-righteousness, but I’d call it a kind of amnesia. It’s like he forgot who he truly was.

The father alone uses all the relational names right: “this son of mine,” “my son,” “your brother.” He always claimed both children in all their worth. God alone knows our deepest value, and he runs out into the world (wherever we find ourselves) to remind us of who we truly are. So hear who you are: You are a precious, beloved, always-welcome member of God’s family. Even when you forget or deny that truth, it’s still true. Even when we forget, walk away, and reject each other – even when human beings give Jesus over to the power of death – God’s love never fails.

So let’s remember that. Let’s remind each other. Let’s celebrate the home we have in God, a place where, when you come, we take you in. A place where, even when you haven’t come, we seek you. A place where terms like ‘going away’ and ‘coming back’ don’t quite fit, because in God’s love you’re always part of this family. For all creation, so may it be.